When most people conjure up a map of Italy, they picture the boot, and maybe Sicily, the triangular soccer ball it’s kicking. Sardinia’s there too, of course, out in the Tyrrhenian Sea beneath Corsica.
Those are the big islands, the obvious ones, and they are magnificent.
But there are other Italian islands — smaller ones that are usually forgotten, or that many visitors don’t even know about. Those are the ones you want to be on.
If you wanna trade concrete for sand and museums for gravel roads, then head to my secret list of Italian islands (marked on the map in pink) where escapism is the preferred pastime.
1. Isola Palmaria | 2. Isola Budelli | 3. Isola di Stromboli
Secret Italian Island #1: Isola Palmaria
Where is it?
Palmaria is in the Ligurian sea in the northwest part of Italy, a short day trip from the Cinque Terre. It is directly in front of Portovenere — one of the prettiest towns in the region and a favourite of Italian tourists.
Why You Wanna Go:
Palmaria has major status — together with Portovenere and the Cinque Terre, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The views from Palmaria are ridiculously sweet. On one side you have an incredible panorama of the Bay of Poets (made famous by Byron), the colourful village of Portovenere, the bluffs that lead to the the Cinque Terre and the port of La Spezia. On the other side all you see is blue water and sky.
The island is split into two very different halves. One side is perfect for families and for those who prefer a sandy shore and shallow water. Head to the public beach called Il Gabbiano (The Seagull) in Punta Secco. A few steps from there is a great restaurant and guesthouse called Locanda Lorena. The view of Portovenere rocks from there.
The other side of the island is called Pozzale and is known for a wild beach lined with pine trees. The locals hang their hammocks in the trees and when hunger hits they head to Ristorante Il Pozzale. Make sure to try the spaghetti ai muscoli (spaghetti with mussels) — the mussels are raised on the farms that surround the island.
The hike around Palmaria takes about two hours. If you find yourself in the Cinque Terre during peak season and the trails are packed, head to Portovenere for a great day trip and take the boat to Palmaria to find your perfect secret hideout.
Departures happen from La Spezia or from Portovenere. You can get to La Spezia from anywhere in Italy via train. To arrive in Portovenere you need to take a bus from La Spezia or catch the ferry from one of the villages of the Cinque Terre. If you love to hike, take the walking trail from Riomaggiore to Portovenere. It’s long (5-6 hours) but beautiful and highly recommended.
- By Boat: From Portovenere (Molo Doria) to Palmaria (Punta Secco) by motorboat: Barcaioli di Portovenere
- By Ferry: From La Spezia (Molo Italia) to Palmaria (Terrizzo or Pozzale) Navigazione Golfo dei Poeti
Secret Italian Island #2: Isola Budelli
Where is it?
Budelli is located just north of the large Italian island of Sardinia. You’ll find this uninhabited island in La Maddalena National Park — just south of the Razzoli and Santa Maria islands.
Why You Wanna Go:
The island is known for its crystal water, rocky coves, steep cliffs rising from the sea and unspoiled natural scenery. The most famous beach in the area is called Spiaggia Rosa (Pink Beach) and people like to say it’s the most beautiful in the Mediterranean. Its name comes from fragments of shells and coral that tint the sand pink. Another beautiful beach close to Spiaggia Rosa is called Manto della Madonna (Virgin Mary’s Mantle).
To get to Budelli, first you must travel to the northern Sardinian town of Olbia (meaning happiness in Greek!). You can get there either by plane or by ferry (see my extensive list below). The fact that Olbia has an international airport means that you can make life super simple and fly from other parts of Europe or Italy — you’ll just be another jet-setter heading to the sexy Costa Smeralda.
Then from Olbia you need to reach the port of Palau where you can catch a ferry or boat to Budelli. It’s about a 40-minute drive from Olbia, and you can get there by bus.
- By ferry: From Palau to the Maddalena Islands, choose either Saremar or Enermar.
- By boat: From Palau and La Maddalena via motorboat or sailboat, try Gite in Barca.
But first, ya gotta get to Olbia.
- To Olbia by ferry.
From Genova Grandi Navi Veloci | Moby Lines | Tirrenia | Snav
From Civitavecchia (Roma) to Olbia Grandi Navi Veloci | Tirrenia | Moby Lines
From Livorno to Olbia Moby Lines | Corsica Ferries
From Piombino (Livorno) to Olbia Moby Lines
- To Olbia from Italian cities by air.
From Pisa with Alitalia. From Milan (Malpensa) with easyJet or Air Italy. From Milano (Orio al Serio), Verona, or Torino with Volotea or Air Italy. From Milano (Linate) or Rome (Fiumicino) with Air Italy. From Bologna with Air Italy or Alitalia. From Palermo with Volotea. From Venezia with Volotea, easyJet or Air Italy.
- To Olbia from European cities by air.
From the U.K to Olbia with Easy Jet (London Gatwick, Luton) or British Airways (London Gatwick, London Heathrow). From France with Easy Jet (Paris, Lyon, Nice). From Spain with Easy Jet (Madrid) or Vueling (Barcelona). From Germany and Austria with Intersky (Friedrichshafen) with TUI fly (Berlin, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hannover, Munich, Nuremberg, Salzburg, Stuttgart, Vienna) with Easy Jet (Berlin). From Switzerland with Easy Jet (Geneva, Basel). Whoooo!!
Secret Italian Island #3: Isola di Stromboli
Where is it?
Stromboli is located off the north coast of Sicily. It is one of the eight volcanic Aeolian Islands.
Why you wanna go:
Black sand beaches, cobalt water and a smoking hot volcano in the middle of the sea.
Did you know that this Italian island is home to an active volcano? The last major eruption happened in 2009 but small eruptions constantly lend it the name “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean”. In the daytime you can see puffs of smoke and at night lava glows as it makes its way down Sciara del Fuoco (Slope of Fire). You need a guide to take you up to view the molten lava, which they do at night so you can see the coolest natural glow-in-the-dark show.
On Stromboli the rhythms are slow. Car traffic isn’t allowed in summertime so the locals travel by foot or bike.
What is fascinating is that this place is very low key: no fancy resorts and splashy excess like you’ll see on Sardinia. The most wild thing happening is people sipping granitas in the crowded Ingrid Bar or movie watching on the library’s public lawn in the town of Stromboli.
On the opposite side of the island you’ll find the tiny village of Ginostra which is reachable only by the sea from its tiny port (Pertuso in the local dialect), one of the smallest of the world. Apart from a few summer homes, there are just a handful of residents. A point of interest is Eolo‘s grotto (La Grotta di Eolo). In classical mythology the God of Wind lived on this island and kept the winds locked in this grotto.
As far as the beaches, Scari and Ficogrande are the most famous for their fine black sand. When the wind blows in the right direction you can hear the huffing of the volcano.
And of course, make sure you see Roberto Rossellini’s flick “Stromboli” with Ingrid Bergman before you go!
The Aeolian Islands are in the province of Messina and can be reached by sea. By air you can travel to Reggio Calabria and then make your way to Stromboli. I’ve listed all possibilities below.
- By Boat:
Either from the mainland or from Sicily.
Mainland — by ferry or hydrofoil:
From Napoli (Mergellina) to Stromboli: Alilauro | Snav.
From Napoli (Calata porto di Massa) to Ginostra (Stromboli) or the town of Stromboli: Siremar.
From Messina to Stromboli: Liberty Lines.
From Milazzo (Sicily) to Ginostra (Stromboli): N.G.I | Liberty Lines.
From Milazzo to Stromboli: Siremar.
By air from Italian cities:
The nearest airport is in Reggio Calabria. To get to Reggio Calabria, your options are: From Genoa, Milano (Linate or Malpensa), Roma (Fiumicino) with Alitalia. From Roma (Fiumicino), Milano (Linate) with Blue Panorama.
From the Reggio Calabria airport:
There are bus connections to Messina (Sicily) with Autolinee Federico and from Messina to Milazzo with Giunta bus. It is possible to reach Reggio Calabria also by train with the Italian railways and by car followed by ferries from Reggio Calabria to Messina.
Have you ever been to Palmaria, Budelli or Stromboli? Have any tips to share?
Which island makes you wanna pack your bags and be there by morning?
I’d love to hear your comments below!
If you like these suggestions about more “off the beaten path” travel in Italy for all you vetted explorers, check out these blog posts for more tips like these:
- Cinque Terre: How to Decide Which Village to Stay In
- The Best Beaches in Italy’s Cinque Terre and Beyond (+ Our Fave Only-Locals-Know-About-These Spots!)
- 5 Best Places to Travel in Italy in 2018
- Places we LOVE to recommend: Positano, Matera, Puglia
- How to Get to Sicily: A Cheat Sheet
Photo credits: Valentina Cossu, map by Laura Bird for Italian Fix